A coalition of environment groups says the large corporate sponsorship at next week's meeting of energy ministers "sends the wrong message to Canadians."
Eleven energy companies and associations are spending $180,000 to sponsor the annual conference that will be held July 16 to 19 in Kananaskis, Alberta. The sponsorship is just under a third of the approximately $600,000 price tag for the conference.
Federal, provincial and territorial ministers and their deputy ministers are holding their annual meeting to discuss, among other issues, a national energy strategy. But environment groups say the sponsorship is a clear attempt by the petroleum industry to influence people who will be making crucial decisions about Canada's energy future.
"We have the big oil picking up the tab," said Sierrra Club Executive Director John Bennett. "Is the Alberta government so broke that it has to do this? It smells bad and sends the wrong message to Canadians."
The sponsors are given a high profile on the website for the conference.
- $30,000: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
- $20,000: The Oil Sands Developers Group, Nexen, TransCanada, Cenovus Energy.
- $10,000: Devon, Canadian Electricity Association, Shell, Encana Natural Gas, Enbridge, Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, Canadian Petroleum Products Institute.
Bob McManus, a spokesman for Alberta's department of energy, said the sponsorship money will be used to fly the ministers and their deputies to visit the oil sands operations in Fort McMurray. It will also pay for a reception there and go towards a charity reception and silent auction for Alberta's helicopter air rescue unit.
McManus said the money gives the companies access to the sessions at the conference that are also open to environmental groups and think tanks, but not to the closed door political meetings.
"The sponsorship has no influence on the conference, no one gets special treatment for their sponsorship," he said.
But Graham Saul from the Climate Action Network disagrees.
"When was the last time they let environmental NGO's give them a tour of the tar sands? This money gives them huge access. It looks like the government ministers are in the pockets of the oil industry," he said.
Previous energy ministers' conferences have had some levels of sponsorship but never as high as $180,000. Last year's meeting was in Montreal, and while it received money from the Quebec provincial government's investment arm, it decided not to accept any private corporate funding.
The last conference in western Canada held in Saskatoon in 2008, received $3,000 in sponsorship from a regional airline, Transwest Air. Several of the province’s mining and oil companies paid for tours of their facilities for delegates attending the conference.